Thousands of unvaccinated prison workers may face penalties

COLLEEN O'DEA, SENIOR WRITER AND PROJECTS EDITOR | FEBRUARY 18, 2022

NJ  Spotlight News

The deadline has passed for all New Jersey correctional police officers to have gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, but it’s unclear how soon, or if, the Department of Corrections may begin suspending the potentially thousands who have not complied with the mandate.

Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday during his COVID-19 briefing that he was confident there would be enough staff to continue to oversee the state’s prisons, which house about 12,000 individuals.

Just 43% of corrections staff members have been vaccinated, corrections spokeswoman Liz Velez said Thursday.

The department has a staff, including uniformed officers and civilians, of more than 7,500, according to state budget documents. That would mean more than 4,000 employees are not fully vaccinated. Corrections employs about 5,000 correctional police officers, according to William Sullivan, president of PBA Local 105, which represents them. It is unknown how many of the unvaccinated staff are officers.

“Our HR team is still aggregating the data,” Velez said when asked how many corrections employees are not fully vaccinated.

The department’s data shows 4,402 staffers received vaccines through the department, with at least 2,200 fully vaccinated and 173 having received a booster.

Murphy’s executive order

On Jan. 19, Murphy issued an executive order requiring workers in health care and congregate living settings, including prisons, to be vaccinated. For corrections staff, the deadline to have received at least a first dose, or request a medical or religious exemption, was Feb. 16. They need to have received a second dose or booster by March 30. The order required employers to draft a disciplinary process for noncompliance with the order that could include termination. The corrections department did that.

“Barring an approved exemption, staff who are not timely vaccinated will be given notice of non-compliance with three days from the date of the notice to comply,” Velez said in an emailed response to NJ Spotlight News on the timing of disciplinary actions. “Staff who have still not complied will be issued removal (termination) charges and then suspended without pay after a Loudermill hearing, pending termination proceedings.”

That means the timing of actual firings, should they proceed, is still unknown. Once the DOC begins sending out non-compliance notices, which union officials suspect may be Monday or Tuesday of next week, officers and other staff will have three days to comply before being notified of suspension and possible termination, pending a hearing. Public sector workers are entitled to contest a firing with a Loudermill hearing before the state can take such an action.

A move to terminate officers could trigger a mass retirement. Sullivan said 1,500 officers currently are eligible to retire, and many may put in their paperwork to retire “once you see people getting the three-day notices.”

Prior to Murphy’s Jan. 19 order, the state was allowing its workers to be tested weekly or twice a week for COVID-19 in place of proof of vaccination. A report by Gothamist found the state had spent at least $9.5 million to test state workers from Oct. 18 through early February. Corrections had the lowest vaccination rate of any state department, then 41%. The average vaccination rate for state workers was 70% at the time.

Currently, the state Department of Health reports that 77% of all eligible New Jerseyans are vaccinated.

Why officers are not getting vaccinated

Sullivan gave several reasons why officers have chosen not to get vaccinated, most of them related to concerns over the speed with which the vaccines were approved and questioning the science of their effectiveness. In particular, he said, they don’t understand why the state is requiring them to be fully vaccinated, but not the incarcerated, nor those who are coming to visit them. And they question why they need to be vaccinated when Murphy is lifting the mask mandate for schools.

“I think a lot of people don’t trust a lot of the science behind it,” Sullivan said. “Most people don’t understand that most officers don’t have constant contact with inmates. In most facilities, they spend most of the time in enclosures behind bullet-proof glass.”

He added that about 40% of those who tested positive for COVID-19 due to the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant were vaccinated. The department’s data shows that COVID-19 positive tests among staff reached a high of almost 20% of all tests conducted in mid-December, which was below the total statewide trend.

Sullivan also questioned the timing of Murphy’s announcement, which came as the number of new daily COVID-19 cases was dropping. The number of new cases reported statewide fueled by omicron peaked at 32,700 on Jan. 8 but had dropped to about 16,000 on Jan. 19. On Thursday, the state reported about 2,700 new cases.

“If he had done this at the height of the pandemic, maybe it’s something a bit more people would have trusted,” Sullivan said. He also said the union might have been able to work out a compromise with the governor’s office had union leaders been consulted before Murphy’s order. “We didn’t get to have a conversation. Now we have to be reactive.”

During his Wednesday briefing, Murphy said the state decided to require vaccinations after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld President Joe Biden’s mandate that those working in health care settings get vaccinated and broadened the requirement to include such high-risk communal settings as correctional facilities.

“We know that in certain communities … there is a much higher risk of contagion and potential sickness and potentially severe sickness, or God forbid, death,” Murphy said. “While we have believed all along that in an education setting, the combination of the masks and vaccine mandate or the testing option met the moment inside of an education community, that doesn’t meet the moment, particularly with the strength of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to rely on, in a health care setting or in a congregate community including corrections.”

According to the corrections department, 59 inmates were COVID-positive when they died. More than three-quarters of those died during the first months of the pandemic. Sullivan said five corrections officers have died.

Lawsuit over the mandate

The union had sued to stop the vaccination mandate but lost. A three-judge appellate panel ruled last week that Murphy had the right to order the officers to get vaccinated and went further, quoting President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address in writing, “there are times when individual self-interests like those asserted by appellants must take a backseat to the responsibilities we all have toward each other.” The state Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal. Sullivan said the union’s lawyers are continuing to consider appealing to the federal courts, but the deadline to stop the mandate has already passed.

Murphy expressed confidence that the state would be able to continue to run the prisons even if the corrections department moves to suspend or terminate large numbers of officers.

“Do we have enough workers? We believe the answer’s yes, and we wouldn’t have taken this step unless we felt we had a responsible plan to make sure we could continue to man these communities,” he said.

Velez said the department “is poised to implement strategies to maintain the integrity of its operations including consolidation of units/facilities as needed and/or securing additional resources with the support of the governor’s office.”

New Jersey has released more than 5,500 people from prison to try to stem the spread of the virus, which has reduced crowding within facilities. But the department has continued to pay significant amounts of overtime — at least through last year, according to the state budget. Sullivan said healthy officers had to cancel vacation time and were working 12-hour shifts during December’s COVID-19 spike to ensure adequate staffing of the facilities.

“I’ve been told by department heads that they feel they can consolidate facilities in such a manner that they can continue to staff them,” Sullivan said. “When we are short-staffed there are a lot more inmate assaults … I’ll be curious to see what they do.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-02-18 03:25:46 -0800